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Searching for New Atlantis in China: New at Reason

A whirlwind tour of a world being born.

Aimee2013/Dreamstime.comAimee2013/Dreamstime.comTwin baby girls, Lulu and Nana, were born in Shenzhen, China, last month. That's not news, but this is: These two will likely never have to fear HIV infection. Not because a new vaccine was invented, but because they were born immune to the most common forms of the virus.

You might think this would be a reason to celebrate—imagine a world where no one ever contracts HIV again—but instead of champagne popping, a volcano of outrage and disgust erupted upon the girls' birth announcement.

Many are upset because Lulu and Nana are mutants, the world's first genetically edited babies. When they were but day-old embryos, a scientist in Shenzhen altered their DNA to grant them immunity from infection using a new technique called CRISPR/Cas9.

The fact that this happened in China did not go unnoticed in the commentary. The widespread coverage of He Jiankui, the lead researcher, portrays him as a vainglorious fool acting recklessly in a lawless land. In an ominous twist to the story, He has apparently gone missing.

Is Shenzhen a crazy place? Or is it just different? It may be that Jiankui was rash—we in the U.S. are still haunted by the ghost of the thalidomide incident in 1962—but a troubling assumption hides behind all the commentary: namely, that all regulations and moratoriums ought to apply universally and uniformly across the world.

"The most serious thing I've heard is that he didn't do the paperwork right," Harvard geneticist George Church told the journal Science. "I'm sitting in the middle and everyone else is so extreme that it makes me look like his buddy. He's just an acquaintance. But it seems like a bullying situation to me."

Church is the only prominent scientist to defend He, though this is in some ways unsurprising. Church has already received his own notoriety for cloning a wooly mammoth by using the CRISPR technique and for raising the possibility that Neanderthals might make a come back.

When did it become controversial to think different cities might be allowed to have different scientific regulations and rules about consent? Is there just one global bureaucratic empire of science, asks Michael Gibson in his latest piece for Reason.

Photo Credit: Aimee2013/Dreamstime.com

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